Some surprises in a New York Times piece on English usage. John McWhorter, who teaches linguistics at Columbia University, says that what is considered proper English is, like so much else, a matter of fashion.
First surprise. He makes a fuss about using they in the singular as in Tell each student that they can hand the paper in until 4. Whilst he concedes that Shakespeare and Thackeray both did this, he seems to think it's unfashionable now. Huh? How else would you tell each student that they can hand the paper in until 4? Unless you used the ghastly he/she.
2nd surprise. Apparently, in the 19th century it was the fashion to say a street was well-lighted: lit was considered vulgar. And to this day it's the New York Times house style to use well-lighted. Reprehensible! I know irregular verb forms have a depressing habit of dying out; but all right-thinking people ought to mount a vigorous rearguard action in their defence.
|William Cobbett 1763-1835|
It seems I would have had a fierce opponent in William Cobbett. In his 1818 A Grammar of the English Language (a series of letters to his 14 year old son) Cobbett denounced the past tense forms awoke, blew, built, burst, clung, dealt, dug, drew, froze, grew, hung, meant, spat, stung, swept, swam, threw and wove. The well-spoken person, Cobbett instructed, swimmed yesterday and builded a house last year.
Now I've got this far, it's dawned upon me that I shouldn’t really have been so surprised by Cobbett’s preference for builded over built. Did not William Blake ask if Jerusalem was builded here among these dark satanic mills? I had always imagined that was merely dictated by the meter. And then I can call to mind a much earlier instance, from the 1611 King James Bible, where Cain builded him a city . So these irregular verb forms have been dying out longer than I thought. Hmm.
That doesn't make it right however, and I shall persist in my campaign to retain them.
Another nugget from John McWhorter (unconnected with the foregoing). He gives an example from Charles Dickens to demonstrate “the magnificent evanescence of what is considered sophisticated”. In David Copperfield, Aunt Betsey (a distinctly proper lady) says “Mr. Dick is his name here, and everywhere else, now – if he ever went anywhere else, which he don’t.”
Thanks to Tom for drawing this article to my attention.
John McWhorter’s latest book is What Language Is, What It Isn’t and What It Could Be.
 Genesis 4:17